This dark labyrinth city was a city of some other things before. It was a city of grass and a subterranean city of prairie grass roots (weighing more than a forest of full-grown trees). A city of birds honked off in the vast swamps and congested the dunes with their traffic. The land would burn regularly, rejuvenating the grasses and smiting their enemies the trees. So for millennia it was a city of smoke — the pioneers knew the region by its blue haze, puffed into the horizon by huge fires blowing through the combustible land.
Once it was a city of wood. The archeologist of the future will kneel in the city’s ruin and not read signs of this city, Old Chicago, Chicago One (ordinal to the Second City) — the city of before the fire of 1871. The places that 300,000 people knew as home are entirely vanished from the place today. Old Chicago does live, but as a mute ghost in a loud city that does not abide ghosts.
Now when people think of the city, they think of buildings– it is a city of stone buildings. The city is wealthy with buildings, most of them dreamed up and built by people long out of the picture. The buildings make an inheritance from people of the past that rolls down generations, as inherently valuable to modern people as the ideal cave would be to the people of pre-history. The exteriors of buildings symbolize the city; the shape of the skyline makes a word for the city. But the exteriors of the buildings more truly symbolize the interiors of buildings. The interior of the building is where the city really happens, and on a scale that overwhelms imagination.
It is a city of rooms. For generations the people have been building rooms and traveling back and forth, from one set of rooms to the other — a certain number of rooms available to each person, one room seemingly not so different from another room. The people have been buying their way into some rooms and working their ways into others. They have been searching to find certain rooms. Sometimes they have accidentally found themselves in the wrong room — and why shouldn’t they, living amid a backdrop of so many millions of wrong rooms?
In small town Vermont during witching hour of a still night you can hear certain quiet sounds happening just outside silence. You will expect that the open windows of town would coarsen the near-silence with yelling, sex or T.V.s; the quiet would seem delicate and immediate like a lamprey ashore. But you will hear only silence, and then the abstract sibilant hush of the river. When there is wind you will hear leaves brush on leaves.
Night after night of these quiet noises near the edge of silence and it becomes routine. You hear it better as you continue to listen to it. When it goes especially quiet your ear will lean out to listen.
The windows of town open to bring the silence in. The people of town, frowning and isolated, share the silence like a stranger’s towel. They listen to the subtle ambient sound above the silence, a quiet guardian levying back true silence (like the black silhouette of the mountain, a presence passing for an absence). Church bells toll hourly through the night, protecting people from silence, the tonal vibrations peeling miles off through the sleeping land.
Chicago, of course, does not enjoy charming provincial silence. The banshee white noise waves of the El, which physically shiver the buildings along the tracks, afford a broad berth of public noise. People of the city understand that other people must break off their piece of the common silence to curate with their important select noises. Civilization demands incidental noise.
A block south of Humboldt Park and two stories up: my old bedroom, painted with stripes. I had leaned a microphone out the window, cranked up the signal, and listened eyes-closed on headphones to Chicago MUCH LOUDER. The bark of squirrel, a plane, cars, distant Spanish, a percussive churn of weather. Much was going down in the din. Listening to and recording the din of the city briefly became my main hobbyhorse.
One godforsaken night I was listening out the window to the sound shortly before dawn. Here was the city as near to the outer edge of silence as it gets: to my naked ear, it sounded like silence. I immensely amplified the silence and heard the noise next to it, roaring into the headphone speaker right beside my ear.
The sound: a nasty low polytonal HUMMMMMM, a synthesizer patch of the composite sound of millions of people asleep.
After listening a moment to this outrageous noise revealed at the edge of silence, I slipped off the headphones. Now I could hear it– in what had seemed like silence to me a moment before, I could now hear how loud this noise was, this noise which screams out to Chicago in its quietest moments. Chicago silence is actually the sound of this weird loud noise.
This quiet local noise is always audible and distinct but generally loses out on our attention to louder, more prominent sounds and sensations. It is camouflaged by its monotony, relentlessness and subtlety, normalized like a color filter on a camera lens. The noise at the edge of Chicago silence is blasting an entire band of the sound spectrum out of our ears; it probably alters the way that music itself sounds inside Chicago city limits.
I had smacked against the cliff face of shore (my body folding into the rocks like batter) and there have lain sleeping under arcs of orange and lavender atmosphere in the stone city labyrinth named CHICAGO. In my dream I kneel at a molten river, fingering the lines of current, wandering back in time.
The earth of this twisted city is frozen shut with asphalt. It does not liberally let roots through. The people must spend their lives distributing their weight among the stacked rocks, hammering stakes and lashing down their legs to withstand the uncertain violence of the weather. Fingers run white holding their grip. The land would seem to repulse life, pushing it up into the sky, which is the mystic glowing city sky, which shoots orange and lavender on the river water and blows a colored smoke into the glass, filling people with abstract visions of the Middle Ages.
* * *
Medievalness of mind: it appears in the form of a shadow (a coldness, darkness, an alluding shape of light), an atavistic consciousness of true memory from beyond experience, or a false memory. It is a highly selective projection, a personal, contemporized, Crichton-ized Medievalism, bleached of feudalism, Christ, and horses: a loose goo with some edges filed into reactionary vividness against the present times. For these times, it must be a boutique Medievalism.
A medievalist might be a hopeless reactionary, an anachronism to the point of parody. Ignatius Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces: cranky, deluded, and ridiculous (a ridiculousness that projects him off the surface of the real world, and protects him from harm). Post-modernity likes the improvised jumble of Chicago without the liquor of omnipresent rock-hard religion; old blind Money persistently prints out contemporary shapes and circumstances and coping with that will be enough. Here is the pastoralist in an engineered landscape bent into a fractured shape of millions of humans — the Chicago road arrow straight, the Medieval road roving with the wisdom of the walking cows. The modern Medievalist would almost have to be a buffoon.
A parodic Medievalism: actually, doesn’t that seem post-modern? Chicago’s signature frilly Beaux-Art aesthetic (directly influenced by Victorian-era resuscitation of Medieval decorative art) and subconscious Francophilia paints the scene for such a farce. Modern people’s fetishistic mythology of the organic lifestyle, perhaps, will be understood as a parodic yearning to become the Medieval person, the original “natural person,” a human synonym of the soil they tilled. The Medievalist Chicagoan appreciates the local, the romantic, the hermetic, the folk decorative, the artisan, the arts and crafts, the freedom hidden latent in hands, the importance of community in work, the importance of spirit in work.
John Ruskin, iconoclastic Medievalist aesthete and key figure in the late-19th century relaunch of thinking about the Middle Ages, would see the Medieval tradition alive in the Chicago underground DIY music and arts scene. With castle gates to somewhat fend back the world, the artists establish their own order, leaning their own communitarian values as pillars against the prevailing values of the world. (And there is Ruskin in his time, jealously imagining the ordered fraternal spirituality of the Middle Ages against the bleak alienation of early industrialism’s factories frivolously eating generations of people.) Medieval art is art put to the service of religion, politics or society, rather than as an outlet for personal expression or for its own sake (a Renaissance sensibility); DIY Chicago uses art and music to bring people together, make love, create community, and (to some extent) engage with and change society. Some modern artists and musicians after the Medieval strain make spiritual art as healing antidote to the Age — and while doing it feel “out of time.”
20th century events trephinated Western heritage, blotting out pieces of the Enlightenment brain (such as conventions of visual representation and devout progressive rationality); a musty Middle Ages mind leaks out, scabbing over the wounds as generations peel off in the night.
A powerful image of a Woman opened the door of my Medieval unconsciousness. Time marked by, the Woman mystified and possessed me. In her realm she would rub a lamp and I would be compelled to appear. I was a genie made from magic yet before her enchained. Then I was bellowing monophonic music in my heart, quilling low verse, and making crude vernacular paintings. Then I could effortlessly spend the duration of my life dragging stones in her honor, then I sought a quarry. The very trace of her compelled me.
I reached for the weird words of Henry Adams, Mont St Michel and Chartres. Writing in 1904, Adams surveys the immortal glory of 12th-century French Gothic architecture and concludes that the forgotten secret to the success of Medieval civilization is its worship of Woman. Adams describes a spiritual interregnum, a brief golden window around the 1100s when the old White Goddess (“the eternal woman,— Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite”) ruled again, costumed now as the Virgin. For Adams, this deity built the great cathedrals. The form of the Virgin gave Medieval people an alternative type of consciousness (lost in the patrimonial smog of his times) — an enlightened ideal feminism, where sex and the irrational were admitted in the Church’s front door. For a brief moment, Woman was the ideal, the superior of men, and at the center of the social order. Adams, holding the sculptured light of Gothic Cathedrals beside the Science then discombobulating his world, ultimately concludes that “the proper study of mankind is woman.”
Modernity, with emergent feminized consciousness, probably has renewed access to an occult Medieval type of apprehension of and engagement with the world. The rich meat of the Middle Ages is its soul: the Medieval world is the ensouled world, anima mundi, where goes systemic social purpose (the elements of Medieval society in purposeful Cosmic interrelation, unified under the boot of their God) streaked with sunken magic symbols (as Roger Bacon’s semiotics, 600 years before Peirce or Lacan) rounding a Boethian Wheel of circular time (relieved of linear time’s mythology of progressive growth). Many vernacular institutions have gone dormant in our time, but soul does persist and we also still have love, the classic gushing love that fuses. Post-modern people dream of the ensouled world of the Middle Ages, and still live in it.
“When a man undertakes to create something, he establishes a new heaven, as it were, and from it the work that he desires to create flows into him… For such is the immensity of man that he is greater than heaven and earth”
— Paracelsus, Middle Ages occultist and psychosomatician
Seven escalators up: MENSWEAR: End of the line. It seemed then as though a foggy breeze blew through the department store, but no, that could not be possible.
I was on a semiotic journey to the heart of modern Midwest menswear (as to the source of the Blue Nile, a river whose waters I could taste downstream in the thrift stores); I weaved through the gilded strip of clothiers on Michigan Avenue. I was disguised as a customer (hidden behind a mustache, severity of aspect, a polyester outfit) though I had no desire to buy or even wear the clothes I saw. Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Express, Banana Republic, The North Face, Bloomingdale, The Men’s Warehouse, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Macy’s. I drew their fabrics to my nose.
Many are the threads of text in the textile of 2015 haberdashery; let us first look into the image of the clothes, before clothing them in the wet shirt of their world.
What were these modern clothes?
Suits, ties, dress shirts, casual shirts, t-shirts, distressed jeans and colored chinos, leather jackets, faux fur hooded down-filled coats, hoodies, cable knit sweaters. Banded collar shirts (as seen in the 1990s office) are back at Abercrombie and H&M, but at least now they can be ironic or post-ironic. Haberdashers agree on cotton; I did not notice any acrylic or polyester. I did not look at shoes.
What colors and prints are stores trying to sell men these days?
After a long “Summer of Stripes” where America was wearing stripes, the fall brings a couple white t-shirts with black stripes, but few other stripes. I did spot some paisley, floral print and even a polka dot sweater at H&M (polka dots are a surprisingly very rare men’s print). For men it will almost have to be plaid.
Perhaps it is a lingering lighthearted plume of summer that floods these stores with so many gingham plaid shirts? And in a rainbow of hard, vibrant colors. Men: rest assured it is totally mainstream to wear your purple gingham plaid shirt to a dinner out.
White, black, and blue tartan plaid lumberjack shirts were also general, in an omnipresent signature 2015 phthalo blue. A contemporary man also wears bright visibility orange — if you trust the opinion of Ralph Lauren, America’s top name in baggy shirts. He’s got about a million $400 orange cable knit cashmere sweaters to sell you.
Speaking of old man Ralph Lauren, I noted his big oxford shirts (fabric flaps in the pits like bat wings) shifting into a new, brighter, almost neon color palette. No vintage Lauren shirts have these colors; in fact they evoke the vivid color plaids (like bright yellow) of Chaps and Club Room, two cheap knock-off brands. I guess the modern office is ablaze in psychedelic madras plaids from freshly civilized parts of the spectrum.
(continued below …)
Where were the clothes made?
Modern clothes are made where people will accept the smallest possible wage. Almost all the clothes I saw were made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, or Indonesia. The free trade dreams of the ’90s New Economy walk the Earth.
How much did the clothes cost?
When I checked a price, I thankfully did not have a mouthful of coffee to spit-take over the rack of $350 coats. Button down shirts cost $70 – $125. Sweaters $200-$500. Given how seemingly cheap the production costs are (for example, made with cotton in China at $1 an hour, the physical part of the shirts should be almost a free, self-generating miracle), does the price of these clothes seem inflated?
I guess Brooks Brothers or Michael Kors takes the money they save via globalized production and shine their clothing with extra mythology (infused like a syringe of flavor juice into a turkey before deep frying), deepening the object with management and marketing, Gold Coast retail space, copy writing (exactly selected words for the little book with your sweater, the little spell book), ultra-contemporary signal encoding made by experts of modernity in Manhattan or L.A. (post-modern places where “the present” elsewhere is already the recent past).
The magic shopping atmosphere also massages emotions and attitudes into the clothing via clouds of Polo scent cologne, black and white photographs of Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford (this is you: wildly rich, accomplished, middle-aged, hot actress wife in one hand, cigarette in the other), woody environs. It takes one thing to make a shirt, and another to make that shirt mean something. These new clothes have a destiny (in principle, anyway) to graduate off into the world, and live on the bodies of the pedigreed class and culture of people that also wear (and thus can read / decode) such contemporary clothes.
Men are buying the text (the shirt), but are really paying for the context (how it fits in the modern world, which gives mouth to the shirt to speak its message). They’re paying for how their shirts will look next to last season’s shirt, they’re paying for a sense of confidence (as sturdy as a good brand) in knowing themselves in the newly minted context of the present. A bourgeois man pays $125 for a shirt to cover over and decorate his chest because he’s also buying a sense of premium identity (utterly acceptable, conventional clothes with a novel wisp of modernity).
The high price is also part of the point. Money gates off the world of new clothes. Not every man spends to live in 2015 clothing prints and labels. It is an elite world, but it is also democratic: the gate opens by money. Anyone can buy their way in. It is the straight world. You too can enjoy acceptance; it’s for sale on Michigan Avenue with all the safety and taste modern conformity can afford.
So happy was I to attend Chicago’s international modern art fair, Chicago Expo — to behold the strange sights and to share them with a community of seers. All I ask of art is quantity (an adequate amount of it), and the fair had a satisfyingly delirious quantity of loose fresh art. All the art was better for it, to be immediately contextualized by other images, so many of such immense meditation. My favorite images speak for themselves —
I stare off (skimming the generally bloodless and uninformative online Sun-Times) and wonder — how I will get connected with the HOT SCOOP? Whatever is going on out there? Something would have to be. At least somebody could dig at it or make it up. EXTRA EXTRA. In this merchant’s town, shouldn’t inside information still be worth something? So I read these spunky 2015 Chicago blogs, too, which dish fresh scoops with hot spoons.
Chicago Patterns (http://chicagopatterns.com/) — I would like to freeze time and, flying merrily through the air, run my hands along all the byzantine decoration stuck to the faces of Chicago buildings. This very fun blog mimics this sort of glee. We get not only photos, but also legwork. We discover the oldest building in Avondale — an old barn in an alley– and watch it abruptly torn down. We put Stephen Douglas back at home on the near South Side. Chicago architecture deep cuts.
Second City Cop (http://secondcitycop.blogspot.com/) — Pull up a stool, why don’t you, and warm yourself before the anonymous blog comments of a crowd of Chicago cops? Don’t get singed on the hot hot hot paternalism. But enjoy the hot wet mouths of police officers mouthing off.
City Notes (http://danielkayhertz.com/) — A satisfying and stimulating Chicago urban policy blog penned by a careful and studied smarty. A fount of stats, history, and maps of the city’s stark economic and racial geography — Hertz lays out a spread of facts, and then has the audacity to interpret them toward a truth about the city.
Crime in Wrigleyville & Boystown (http://www.cwbchicago.com/) — A “gawking” blog for me, this is a very active community crime bulletin for the Lakeview neighborhood. The newspapers run a skeletal sketch story about a crime; this blog goes on the beat to give you the full scoop (witness and victim interviews, original photography). The comment sections are flooded (I mean, like, more than 50 comments) with hysterical shrieks about moving to the suburbs. This blog makes the crime in Lakeview seem really bad.
Chicago History Today (https://chicagohistorytoday.wordpress.com/) — A candy tray of colorful Chicago history tidbits. We go from William Jennings Bryan named the surprise Democratic candidate deep on the South Side to the Jefferson Park of the 1950s.
Tumbler of Chicago History Museum (http://chicagohistorymuseum.tumblr.com) — Sometimes I wonder if Chicago will exist in 1,000 years. This blog shows in lush photography a series of cities called “Chicago” hovering on this spot. Take a look at the Gay Pride Parade of 1971 or the Uptown beach in 1916.